Ecology and Political Upheaval

Jeffrey D. Sachs of the Earth Institute has written an article saying that small changes in climate can cause wars, topple governments and crush economies already strained by poverty. I agree with this and consider it part of the Perfect Storm of unfolding future events that I’m always talking about.

I’m not at all sure that he goes far enough, however. Civilization, in many ways, is like a house of cards we’ve been building. Year by year, we build it higher and year by year it balances and hangs together but ever more precariously.

I think that other factors, which are part of the Perfect Storm hypothesis, are also more than capable of creating the same disruptions. Consider desertification or the falling water tables around the world. Consider the ever growing national debt of the United States. Consider the growing disparity between the rich and the poor. Consider impending Peak Oil. And finally, consider the effects of Globalization.

Each of these has the ability to drive us through tipping points into the chaos beyond. All that is required is that something essential like food or water or the petroleum needed to produce our food should go into short supply.

Globalization is making the house-of-cards particularly fragile. Its been pasting wide-spread economies together and making them dependent on each other. Once chaos begins from any cause, these fragile links will break and the economies who’ve unwisely become dependent on them will stumble badly too as a result.

It’s all interconnected and finely balanced and the are multiple issues ticking down to tipping time. So, Sachs is right but I just don’t think he’s cast a wide enough net yet to catch the full scope of the futures waiting for us in the wings of the next decade or two.

Here’s the beginning of Sach’s article and a link to the rest:


Careful study of the long-term climate record has shown that even a minor shock to the system can cause an enormous change in outcome, a nonlinear response that has come to be called “abrupt climate change.” Less well recognized is that our social and economic systems are also highly sensitive to climate perturbations. Seemingly modest fluctuations in rainfall, temperature and other meteorological factors can create havoc in vulnerable societies.

Recent years have shown that shifts in rainfall can bring down governments and even set off wars. The African Sahel, just south of the Sahara, provides a dramatic and poignant demonstration. The deadly carnage in Darfur, Sudan, for example, which is almost always discussed in political and military terms, has roots in an ecological crisis directly arising from climate shocks. Darfur is an arid zone with overlapping, growing populations of impoverished pastoralists (tending goats, cattle and camels) and sedentary farmers. Both groups depend on rainfall for their livelihoods and lives. The average rainfall has probably declined in the past few decades but is in any case highly variable, leaving Darfur prone to drought. When the rains faltered in the 1980s, violence ensued. Communities fought to survive by raiding others and attempting to seize or protect scarce water and food supplies.


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